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Poland border wall hasn't stopped migrants

September 21, 2022

The world was moved by Poland's solidarity with refugees from Ukraine. Refugees from elsewhere entering from Belarus, however, get a very different reception. Activists and volunteers help where they can.

Migrants in a tent camp on the Belarusian-Polish border in November 2021
Human rights activists fear for migrants attempting to cross illegally into Poland from Belarus this winterImage: Oksana Manchuk/BelTA/TASS/picture alliance/dpa

Katarzyna Wappa comes from the town of Hajnowka in eastern Poland, close to the Belarusian border. Bialowieza Forest is right on her doorstep.

In September 2021, the English teacher and mother of two noticed that "something wasn't right" in the forest. She began seeing figures among the trees: exhausted, emaciated people who were often sick and suffering from hypothermia.

Bialowieza Forest
Bialowieza Forest, on the border between Poland and Belarus, is an impassable marshlandImage: Agnieszka Hreczuk/DW

It was around this time that the leader of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, began using migrants as a political weapon against the EU. People from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria who had flown to Belarus were brought to the border and forced to cross illegally into Poland.

Warsaw's response was swift and tough: It deployed police and military units to the region and set up a military exclusion zone to keep out prying eyes.

Local activists help out

Local activists, including Wappa, quickly set up a group of willing helpers. They went in search of migrants stranded in the forest and administered first aid. "We often had to play the role of doctor, lawyer, nurse and even babysitter," says Wappa. "I once carried a dying man out of the forest in my arms. We managed to save him just in time." On another occasion, she gave a barefoot refugee a pair of shoes.

Karte Polen Belarus Bialowiezer Urwald EN

Wappa was one of the few people involved to show her face — a decision that would have serious consequences. After a report about her was broadcast on television, her Facebook page was flooded with messages of hate. She was vilified by state media and her encounters with the security forces escalated.

Claims of illegal pushbacks

"I had a sick feeling in my tummy when I saw four masked soldiers running towards me all of a sudden," she says of one encounter, the shock still etched in her face. "On another occasion, my car was stopped by the police. The officers started hammering on the roof with their fists, making a terrible noise. My children started crying. I begged them to stop, but they didn't."

Polish human rights activist Katarzyna Wappa
Polish human rights activist Katarzyna Wappa near the Polish-Belarusian border

"We had to hide the rescued refugees from the security forces so that they wouldn't be pushed back across the Belarusian border," she tells DW. Although such pushbacksare illegal, they did happen in Poland, says Wappa, who was presented with an award in recognition of her work by the Polish Grand Press Foundation in Gdansk in August 2022.

Vilified by the government

The hatred felt towards her and other human rights activists was stoked by the government in Warsaw. The ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) has been implementing its right-wing populist agenda without regard to the rule of law or the protection of minorities since its electoral victory in fall 2015.

Since then, the independence of the judiciary has been massively curtailed, abortion rights restricted, LGBTQ people marginalized and insulted, and migrants from the Middle East and Africa labeled as terrorists. While many in Poland support these policies, there are also courageous civil rights activists who are not willing to accept human rights violations.

"Inhuman policies"

One of these activists is lawyer Marta Gorczynska. Ten years ago, she joined the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights in Warsaw. When she saw media reports last fall about Afghan refugees who had been stuck at the Polish-Belarusian border for days without food and water, she set off to see if she could help.

Lawyer Marta Gorczynska
Marta Gorczynska was presented with the Human Rights Prize of the German PRO ASYL Foundation in Frankfurt on 3 September 2022Image: Wiebke Rannenberg/PRO ASYL

The "Grupa Granica" (Border Group) was set up in the region around this time. Its aim was to protect migrants who, says Gorczynska, "had become the victims of the inhuman policies of the governments of Belarus and Poland."

Food and a blanket

"I came to the forest to document human rights violations and provide legal counsel," she explains, before adding that it soon became clear that what many refugees needed most was a warm blanket and something to eat.

She accuses the authorities of refusing to enter into any dialogue with non-governmental organizations. "Instead," she says, "we are dismissed as traitors and enemies of the fatherland."

Loss of life

While moments of success are few and far between, grief is ever-present at the border. The authorities say that 16 people have lost their lives there. According to Gorczynska, at least 20 have died, probably many more. "Who has a right to asylum and who doesn't is a completely different matter," she says. "But we cannot allow people to suffer and die on the border."

Members of the Polish security forces patrol the border wall with Belarus
The border wall between Poland and Belarus is high, but not high enough to stop desperate migrantsImage: Michal Dyjuk/AP Photo/picture alliance

Gorczynska was presented with the Human Rights Prize of the German PRO ASYL Foundation in early September 2022.

Catholic Church watching from the sidelines

Jakub Kiersnowski is head of the Club of Catholic Intelligentsia (KIK), a respected organization better known for its lectures and meetings with prominent figures than its spectacular campaigns. "We simply couldn't sit back and do nothing," he tells DW. When he called on members to take action; hundreds responded. Within a week, an assistance centre was set up in eastern Poland. Then, on 16 October 2021, the group started work near the border.

Kiersnowski makes no bones about his disappointment in the Catholic Church. Although one bishop publicly called on people to help migrants, the Church did not actually get directly involved in any way. Kiersnowski is of the opinion that the Church's inactivity is down to its close ties with the ruling PiS.

Catholic helpers targeted by authorities

"It's a pity that the men studying for the priesthood did not get involved in our relief effort. Washing a refugee's feet would be a practical application of the Gospel's message," he says.

Jakub Kiersnowski
Jakub Kiersnowski is head of the respected Club of Catholic Intelligentsia (KIK). He and other members of the organization have been helping migrants at the border since October 2021Image: Jacek Lepiarz

Members of the KIK also experienced the disapproval of the government first hand. In December 2021, the police arrested four volunteers and stormed the KIK's assistance centre. Charges of aiding and abetting illegal immigration were brought but later dropped. In March of this year, a 20-year-old activist was arrested and led away in handcuffs.

Wall hasn't stopped migrants

During the summer, a 5.5-meter (18-foot) wall was erected along the Polish-Belarusian border. This hasn't stopped several dozen migrants crossing into Poland every day. Human rights activists say that the wall has not solved the problem, but exacerbated it. They have noticed a rising number of refugees with broken arms and legs, injuries they sustained climbing over the wall.

The activists are already bracing themselves for winter and the misery and dangers it will bring for refugees at the border.

This article has been translated from German by Aingeal Flanagan

A gray-haired man (Jacek Lepiarz) stands in front of bookcases full of books
Jacek Lepiarz Journalist for DW's Polish Service who specializes in German-Polish subjects